DC-3: The Tool That Forged an Industry

In Uncategorized on December 3, 2010 by hillermuseum

The 75th Anniversary of the Douglas DC-3
By Jon Welte

Wilbur and Orville Wright took aloft the world’s first successful airplane on a cold December morning at the dawn of the 20th century. Their achievement was remarkable, yet in the decades immediately afterwards the airplane struggled to find its place in the peaceful commerce of the world. Mechanical liability concerns, performance limitations and safety worries ensured that trains and ships continued their role as the prime means of long distance human transport, much as they had in the years leading up to that first flight at Kitty Hawk.

On December 17th, 1935—thirty-two years to the day after the Wrights’ triumphant foray into the air—an airplane that would fulfill the airplane’s promise of shrinking the worlds’ distances made its first flight in the skies over Santa Monica, California. That airplane was the third civil transport designed by the Douglas Aircraft Company, one of many new aircraft manufacturing ventures begun in the 1920s beneath the sunny skies of Southern California.

Donald Douglas’ company had long since developed a name for itself building airplanes for military use, including the Douglas World Cruiser seaplanes that completed the first circumnavigation of the world by air in 1924. By the early 1930s, it had built its first airplanes for the airline market, the prototype DC-1 and subsequent DC-2. The DC-2 proved to be a moderately successful design. Its sleek, all-metal wings mounted two powerful Wright Cyclone engines, and its sturdy metal fuselage could comfortably carry 14 passengers. Over 150 DC-2s were built and put into service across Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Although successful, the DC-2 suffered from mild stability issues and its passenger capacity made it difficult to operate profitably. In response to a request from American Airlines, Douglas’ team, led by Arthur Raymond, redesigned the plane with a wider fuselage to permit installation of overnight sleeping bunks. The new fuselage design also allowed seating in the daytime configuration to jump to 24 passengers, and at a stroke the new DC-3 was able to pay its way on fare-paying passengers alone.

Following a fast-paced flight test program, the DC-3 entered revenue service in 1936. Its speed and range allowed it to complete transcontinental trips in under 18 hours, a shorter journey than any comparable trip by train. The DC-3’s performance as a passenger-carrying airliner was far superior to any of its contemporaries, so much so that in 1939 90% of all world airline traffic was carried by this remarkable aircraft.

During World War II the DC-3 was produced around the world as the C-47. It was pressed into service ferrying troops and supplies through every theater of the war. Its utility was such that Dwight Eisenhower, commander of Allied forces in Europe, later listed it as one of the four technological inventions most essential to victory.

Nearly 11,000 DC-3 and C-47 aircraft were built by Douglas at its plants in Santa Monica, Long Beach and Oklahoma City. Thousands more were built overseas under license, both as part of the war effort and afterwards as repurposed C-47s fueled a boom in postwar airline service around the world. Hundreds remain in service today, hauling passengers and cargo around the world—from the wilderness of Africa and Alaska to busy commercial airports in California and elsewhere. No other aircraft has yet to approach the DC-3’s universal appeal and longevity in service, or match the DC-3’s role in making air travel practicable throughout the world.

Join the Hiller Aviation Museum this December as we celebrate the 75th birthday of this world-changing aircraft. Weather permitting, up to four flying DC-3s and C-47s will arrive at San Carlos Airport on Friday, December 17th. Tour these amazing airplanes, learn how they work, and try your hand at flying one in the Museum’s Flight Sim Zone. Be on hand as these proud birds depart at the end of festivities on Saturday, December 18th. Don’t miss this rare opportunity to experience the Douglas DC-3.


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